NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”

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"NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”"

ice-free.jpg

The UK’s Independent reports on a study to be presented Tuesday to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco by top cryosphere scientists:

Scientists have found the first unequivocal evidence that the Arctic region is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world at least a decade before it was predicted to happen.

Climate-change researchers have found that air temperatures in the region are higher than would be normally expected during the autumn because the increased melting of the summer Arctic sea ice is accumulating heat in the ocean. The phenomenon, known as Arctic amplification, was not expected to be seen for at least another 10 or 15 years and the findings will further raise concerns that the Arctic has already passed the climatic tipping-point towards ice-free summers, beyond which it may not recover.

The study is from scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), who have been regularly reporting on the unexpectedly rapid loss of Arctic ice over the past several years (see NSIDC stunner: Arctic ice at “Likely Record-Low Volume”). It bears repeating that “The recent [Arctic] sea-ice retreat is larger than in any of the (19) IPCC [climate] models” — and that was a Norwegian expert in 2005. The retreat has accelerated in the past three years.

As one of the NSIDC authors, Mark Serreze, said in August, “No matter where we stand at the end of the melt season it’s just reinforcing this notion that Arctic ice is in its death spiral.” You can read Serreze’s commentary on his new findings here.

It also bears repeating that the loss of Arctic ice has serious consequences for amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“). A June study found “simulated western Arctic land warming trends during rapid sea ice loss are 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate-change trends. The accelerated warming signal penetrates up to 1500 km inland.” In short, once the Arctic sea ice goes, it becomes much harder to save the defrosting of the tundra, which contains as much carbon as the atmosphere, much of which is likely to be released as methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 (see Tundra 2: The point of no return).

The story continues:

Although researchers have documented a catastrophic loss of sea ice during the summer months over the past 20 years, they have not until now detected the definitive temperature signal that they could link with greenhouse-gas emissions.

However, in a study to be presented later today to the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, scientists will show that Arctic amplification has been under way for the past five years, and it will continue to intensify Arctic warming for the foreseeable future.

Computer models of the global climate have for years suggested the Arctic will warm at a faster rate than the rest of the world due to Arctic amplification but many scientists believed this effect would only become measurable in the coming decades.

However, a study by scientists from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Colorado has found that amplification is already showing up as a marked increase in surface air temperatures within the Arctic region during the autumn period, when the sea ice begins to reform after the summer melting period.

Julienne Stroeve, of the NSIDC, who led the study with her colleague Mark Serreze, said that autumn air temperatures this year and in recent years have been anomalously high. The Arctic Ocean warmed more than usual because heat from the sun was absorbed more easily by the dark areas of open water compared to the highly reflective surface of a frozen sea. “Autumn 2008 saw very strong surface temperature anomalies over the areas where the sea ice was lost,” Dr Stroeve told The Independent ahead of her presentation today.

“The observed autumn warming that we’ve seen over the Arctic Ocean, not just this year but over the past five years or so, represents Arctic amplification, the notion that rises in surface air temperatures in response to increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will be larger in the Arctic than elsewhere over the globe,” she said. “The warming climate is leading to more open water in the Arctic Ocean. As these open water areas develop through spring and summer, they absorb most of the sun’s energy, leading to ocean warming.

“In autumn, as the sun sets in the Arctic, most of the heat that was gained in the ocean during summer is released back to the atmosphere, acting to warm the atmosphere. It is this heat-release back to the atmosphere that gives us Arctic amplification.”

Temperature readings for this October were significantly higher than normal across the entire Arctic region — between 3C and 5C above average — but some areas were dramatically higher. In the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, for instance, near-surface air temperatures were more than 7C higher than normal for this time of year. The scientists believe the only reasonable explanation for such high autumn readings is that the ocean heat accumulated during the summer because of the loss of sea ice is being released back into the atmosphere from the sea before winter sea ice has chance to reform.

“One of the reasons we focus on Arctic amplification is that it is a good test of greenhouse warming theory. Even our earliest climate models were telling us that we should see this Arctic amplification emerge as we lose the summer ice cover,” Dr Stroeve said. “This is exactly what we are now starting to see in the observations. Simply put, it’s a case of we hate to say we told you so, but we did,” she added.

Computer models have also predicted totally ice-free summers in the Arctic by 2070, but many scientists now believe that the first ice-free summer could occur far earlier than this, perhaps within the next 20 years.

I’m still trying to get more bets that the Arctic won’t be ice free by 2020 (see “Another big climate bet — Of Ice and Men“).

The time to act is January 20, 2009.

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26 Responses to NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”

  1. jorleh says:

    We in Finland have known this warm sea effect for thirty years. The Baltic sea no more gets its heavy ice cover, last winter there was no ice. Ice breaker ships have no more work, thirty years ago there were a dozen of powerful 100 000 tonne ice breakers working four or five months during the winter.

    And the snow. No more snow in the Southern Finland. And its was halve a meter for months thirty years ago. And the melting has happened year by year, every year less ice on the sea and less snow on the land.

  2. DavidONE says:

    Typo in the original:

    > “This is exactly what we are not starting to see in the observations.

    not -> now

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Ruh-roh.

    Dr Stroeve said, “Simply put, it’s a case of we hate to say we told you so, but we did”. But the deniers/delayers just don’t hear it.

    Joe, this might be the most frustrating aspect. Whenever the stuff finally hits the fan for ALL to see, the deniers/delayers have their response ready to roll:

    “Why didn’t somebody tell us???”

    or

    “If only we had had better science!”

    In other words, somehow they will tell us it was our fault for not warning them.

  4. jorleh says:

    mark: notice that deniers are handicapped with low intelligence (or with own interest, like oil and coal men).

    Most people are living in Stone Age mentally. Joe can´t say this fact, but we can.

  5. Is_Joe_Right says:

    Surface temperatures are not such a good indicator of the sea surface temperatures, as winds can carry hotter or colder air from elsewhere. The ice melt and refreeze processes ARE good indicators of the sea temperature. And we are experiencing a record refreeze season this year. That would be imposible under hot sea temperatures.

    [JR: Zzzzzz. Heard the same exact thing from you deniers last year. Since you don’t believe the best data on Arctic temperatures, from NASA, and you refuse to accept what actual scientists publish, or even what world experts report — since you don’t even have the faith in your own beliefs to post your actual name — Well, you’ll pardon me if I don’t think your opinion on the subject counts for much.]

  6. John McCormick says:

    With Arctic ice melt observations decades ahead of the models predicting meltback, what does that tell us about predictions of methane and CO2 release from the melting tundra being off by decades as well?

    We are only along for the ride and watching nature flash past us as we look through the passenger window.

    John McCormick

  7. Paul Biggs says:

    Computer models interpreted as reality again. Tipping point? Maybe a tipping point for sea ice recovery? The Arctic has probably been ice free before e.g. around 1000 and 6000 years ago. At the same AGU meeting, another abstract ends: “We show that the 2007 atmospheric circulation pattern was highly unusual, especially when compared to patterns that have occurred in the recent past.”

    [JR: Denial of science interpreted as substantive argument. When will you deniers learn that more than one thing can happen at the same time.]

    A lot more than just CO2 going on in the Arctic.

    Latest Arctic news from NSIDC:

    “The period of very rapid increase in ice extent that characterized October and early November has ended. The rise in ice extent through the remainder of November and early December has been much slower. The daily rate of ice growth has slowed simply because there is less physical room for ice to grow: the area of open water shrinks as ice fills it.”

    2009 should be interesting.

    [JR: This century should be tragic if we keep listening to people like you.]

  8. caerbannog says:


    The Arctic has probably been ice free before e.g. around 1000 and 6000 years ago.

    Baloney. Arctic Ocean sediment cores have ruled out that possibility.

    If the Arctic Ocean were ice-free at times during the past few thousand years, we’d see evidence of that in bottom cores (i.e. traces of photosynthetic plankton). The lack of photosynthetic organism traces/fossils means no sunlight reaching the water, which of course, means continuous ice coverage.

    The bottom line is, ice-free during summer/fall, sunlight penetrates the water and photosynthetic organisms reproduce, die, and settle to the bottom where they become part of the sediment record. The lack of such indicates that the Arctic has not been ice-free for many tens of thousands of years *at least*.

  9. Neil Hampshire says:

    I’m new round here but I notice whenever anyone puts a comment with which you might disagree you immediately respond with some derogatory remark calling them a “denier”.

    This is not very conducive to open debate.
    Perhaps you just want to hear opinions which reinforce your own

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    Neil – do you think we should spend time debating whether the Earth is flat or whether the Sun moves around the Earth every 24 hours?

    On some issues the science is settled. (At least until someone might bring some new data to the table.)

    The people who get dismissed around here as “deniers” are ignoring the data and continuing to argue a position which has no backing evidence. They often flat out lie about the facts known.

    When someone says “The Arctic has probably been ice free before e.g. around 1000 and 6000 years ago.” and that runs contrary to the evidence at hand they deserve to be dismissed.

    If they pose the question “Is it possible that the Arctic was ice free?” or they bring new data to the discuss, then continuing to talk with them is a reasonable, or even useful expenditure of effort.

  11. Neil Hampshire says:

    Bob, I have just checked the mean annual surface air temperature (MAAT) anomaly 70-90oN compared to the WMO normal period 1961-1990, as estimated by Hadley CRUT

    In 1937 it was plus 1.9 degrees C
    In 2007 it was plus 1.9 degrees C

    Unfortunately we do not have satellite records back to 1937 but I see no reason why conditions in the Artic in 70 years ago were not very similar to those we see are experiencing today

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    Neil – I guess you missed this post up above. Let me copy it down here for you…

    “The Arctic has probably been ice free before e.g. around 1000 and 6000 years ago.”

    “Baloney. Arctic Ocean sediment cores have ruled out that possibility.

    If the Arctic Ocean were ice-free at times during the past few thousand years, we’d see evidence of that in bottom cores (i.e. traces of photosynthetic plankton). The lack of photosynthetic organism traces/fossils means no sunlight reaching the water, which of course, means continuous ice coverage.

    The bottom line is, ice-free during summer/fall, sunlight penetrates the water and photosynthetic organisms reproduce, die, and settle to the bottom where they become part of the sediment record. The lack of such indicates that the Arctic has not been ice-free for many tens of thousands of years *at least*.”

  13. Neil Hampshire says:

    Bob I am not looking at anything so sophisticated as Arctic Ocean sediments

    It just seems to me that the HadCRUT arctic temperatures suggest the conditions back in 1937 were very similar to those we are experiencing today some 70 years later. The Arctic didn’t “pass the point of no return” back in 1937. Why should it do so today?

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    Because the northern part of the globe is warmer now than back in the 1930s?

    Because we dumped a lot more soot on the snow post WW II than before?

    Because 1937 was a unusually warm year and not indicative of average temperatures of the era?

    Because some sets of data aren’t as reliable as others?

    There’s an answer. Bet you could find it.

    You could start looking here – I don’t have time to read it through at the moment….

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/11/mind-the-gap/

  15. Neil Hampshire says:

    HadCRU 1935 1.2 1936 0.8 1937 1.7 1938 1.6
    HadCRU 2004 1.0 2005 1.9 2006 1.7 2007 1.8

    Except for 1936 it looks very similar to me
    I am not a “denier”, Bob.
    I just want people to take a careful look at all the facts and explain them to me

  16. Tony says:

    This site appears to be an invaluable resource. I appreciate the links and technical savvy.

    As far as “deniers”, I’ve use the word “naysayers”, and the media generally, in it’s own pathetic fashion, tends to elevate anyone with a contrary opinion to an equivalent stature, regardless of evidence or their representing zero peer-reviewed journals.

    The predominance of ignorance or purposeful misinformation is a dark chapter in our legacy. I for one appreciate those willing to put the rigor back into science, and to pull the politics out of it.

    May we return to the days of true innovation, true debate, and civil society. Then perhaps we have a chance at an equitable range of mitigation and adaptation strategies.

    Thanks again,
    Tony

  17. Michael Clausen says:

    “The time to act is January 20, 2008″

    Shouldn’t this be January 20, 2009?

    [JR: The wish was father to the thought. Corrected. Thanks.]

  18. Bob Wallace says:

    Neil – I’m playing outside of my league here, but here’s what I think tells the story. Perhaps someone knowledgeable in the field can give us both a better answer.

    Take a look at this page – the graph in the upper right. Top line.

    http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature/

    Back around the turn of last century the data shows a very pronounced temperature increase. In the late 1930s temperatures hit a temporary peak and then cooled off a bit. This cooling off corresponds with the observed period called “Global Dimming” which, IIRC, seems to have come from all the very dirty coal that we burned during and right after WW II.

    Once we switched to cleaner coal (and dealt with acid rain) temperatures began to rise once more.

    Had the temps of the late 1930s held we would probably have seen an ice free Arctic a long time ago. Note that we reached the 1930s-type temps in the early 1980s but it took a couple of decades to warm things up enough to create major melting.

  19. Neil Hampshire says:

    Thanks Bob
    You have given me a lot to read
    Neil

  20. Mark Shapiro says:

    Neil –

    I’m not familiar with the temp record, but it looks like the Arctic summer and autumn temps are now higher than ever, and the ice is melting so that the open ocean absorbs sunlight and heats up.

    You can see the effect on the ice extent in at UIC’s Cryosphere Today site –

    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere

    Check their NH sea ice extent graph at – –

    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/seasonal.extent.1900-2007.jpg

    Summer and autumn sea ice are way down. That’s why it’s “passing the point of no return”. It’s very bad news.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    No prob, Neil.

    Please share what you learn.

    Especially if you find I’ve got it wrong.

    (The problems that a lot of us have with “deniers” is that they aren’t seeking answers. They’ve got a firmly held belief and they look for ways to support that belief. Even if it means denying well-collected data and flat out lying about stuff that’s been proved to be wrong.)

  22. Richard C says:

    The time to act…I think you were right the first time.

  23. caerbannog says:


    Bob I am not looking at anything so sophisticated as Arctic Ocean sediments

    And that is the core of the problem here. If you consider evidence like sediment cores to be too sophisticated to look at, you will never understand or appreciate the overwhelming scientific evidence for human-caused global-warming.

  24. Mike D says:

    caer-

    Relax. There are a lot of non-experts out there who are trying to understand this and it’s perfectly acceptable for them to start from a point of skepticism. He didn’t roll in here cursing the name of Al Gore or spewing out false information, he presented some real data and asked a legit question. When someone gave him some more info he went off to examine it. That’s all we could hope for.

  25. Aaron d says:

    I have to agree with caerbannog’s overall point. I agree its great when someone asks a question and goes to find the truth by reading science. But to be honest, the majority of the things people are reading are press releases from studies. And we know how bad the media interprets science. Core samples are a fundamental part of the evidence for global warming. Be it ice cores, or sediment cores, they’re all part of it and worth while knowing. I can’t tell you how many times I hear someone say, “How can they know how much CO2 was in the atmosphere and what the temp was 100k years ago.” Without ice cores we wouldn’t know this. I think you need to look at all the evidence, not just the temp. data.